Cooperative Sheep Production Meeting: Clay Center, NE

Last Saturday I spent the day in a classroom at the US Meat Animal Research Center learning about sheep production and tools put out by University of Wyoming Extension to help producers make the best possible management decisions. The meeting was a cooperation between the University of Wyoming Extension, Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center, Nebraska Sheep and Goat Producers and the US Department of Agriculture. There were three speakers each extension educators at the University of Wyoming and consultants at Master Stockman Consulting.

The first speaker was Bridger Feuz, who spoke about the economics of raising sheep.  Economics is important in sheep production to improve profits and build relationships and partnerships with bankers.  As in most of agriculture, tight margins for profit exist when raising sheep.  It is important to budget for every possibility to make the best possible decision for the operation.  The first tool Mr. Feuz introduced was the US Baseline Cost of Production.  This tool allows producers to see where they are relative to the average cost to produce sheep.  It also showed that often in years when the sheep market was down the cattle market was up and vice versa therefore supporting diversification of enterprises in ranching.  The second tool introduced by Mr. Feuz was the Partial Budgeting calculator.  This tool along with the other rest of the tools Mr. Feuz went on to describe can be used for all classes of livestock not just sheep.  It helps producers make better business decisions by answering 4 questions when making changes to an operation:

  1. What new or additional costs will be incurred?
  2. What current income will be lost?
  3. What new or additional income will be received?
  4. What current costs will be reduced?

The other tools Mr. Feuz breiefly explained were the Break-Even Calculator, the Ewe Valuation Calculator, Market Comparison Tool, and Net Present Value Analysis used for pasture improvement.  All these tools can be found at www.uwyoextension.org/ranchtools.

The second speaker was Barton Stam, a forage specialist.  He spoke about meeting the nutritional needs of sheep.  First, Mr. Stam stressed the importance of providing livestock with quality water.  Ward Laboratories, Inc. can run a livestock suitability test to help producers determine if their water is fit for animal consumption.  He recommended timing the grazing of warm and cool season grasses to optimize protein content of the grass with the protein needs to the animal.  Additionally, he recommended grazing the plant before it had reached maturity.  By grazing before the grass has produced a seed head, the potential to graze regrowth later in the season is more likely.  A plant grazed before reaching maturity will continue to grow and trying to produce a seed head.  Once the seed head has been produced however, the plant has achieved its goal and will no longer to continue to grow and produce valuable forage.  His take away was to graze grasses before they reach reproductive maturity to obtain better nutritional value for the animal and potentially stockpile more forage for later grazing.  He also recommended sampling cane type grasses for prussic acid and nitrates.  Producers can send those samples to Ward Laboratories, Inc. for analysis. Mr. Stam introduced the Stocking Rate Calculator as a useful tool for sheep producers to use in decision making.

The third, and final speaker for the morning was Dr. Whit Stewart.  The topic Dr. Stewart addressed was parasite control and resistance of sheep parasites to anthelmintics. The American Consortium for Small Ruminant Parasite Control was introduced to the group of producers as a good source of information regarding parasites, dewormers, and resistance issues. Dr. Stewart recommended producers consider using either the McMaster test or DrenchRite® to determine which dewormers are going to be most effective on their operation and if they have resistance issue with specific anthelmintics. He concluded by speaking about the future potential for natural compounds such as condensed tannins to be utilized to fight parasites.

Overall, each speaker introduced new tools to help producers make the best possible decisions.  Like the tools introduced by the speakers, feed and water analysis at Ward Laboratories, Inc. are also tools to help ranchers make the best possible informed decisions.

Non-Protein Nitrogen and Soybeans: a Deadly Combination

Every once in awhile I get asked if soybean plants or stubble should be tested for nitrates.  Soybeans are legumes like alfalfa, and like alfalfa, under stressed conditions can accumulate a toxic concentration of nitrates.  Soybeans are listed as nitrate accumulators by the Iowa Beef Canter.  Therefore, if you are having doubts, send a sample to Ward Laboratories, Inc. for a test to make the best possible feeding decision.  Having received inquiries about nitrates in soybeans, I was reminded of a cow that got out into a soybean field and died of suspected nitrate poisoning last year.  However, when the soybean plants were tested, low nitrate concentrations were found.  Upon review of the animal’s diet history, non-protein nitrogen was consumed before the cow got out into the bean field.  Concluding that the more likely cause of death in the case of that specific cow was non-protein nitrogen poisoning.

Non-protein nitrogen poisoning occurs when the urea cycle is overloaded.  First, the ruminant animal consumes non-protein nitrogen typically in the form of urea in a supplemental feed.  If fed at high concentrations urea itself can be toxic.  Once in the rumen, urease produced by rumen microbes converts the urea to ammonia.  Ammonia is a form of nitrogen that microbes can use to produce amino acids and ultimately protein for their own population growth and production.  When too much ammonia is present in the rumen, it is absorbed through rumen epithelia and transported through the blood stream to the liver.  In the liver, ammonia is converted back to urea and transported to the kidneys for excretion.  When the kidneys are overloaded with urea and ammonia it continues to circulate around the body in the blood stream.  As a result, animals begin to have facial muscle spasms, frothy salivation, bloat or abdominal pain, labored breathing, frequent urination and weak staggered walking.  Often urea poisoning results in death.

UreaPoisioning

So, what does this have to do with a cow getting out in a bean field?  Soybeans produce the enzyme urease.  When a ruminant animal consumes urea in combination with raw soybeans, the concentration of enzyme is no longer a limiting factor in the rate that urea is converted to ammonia.  The rumen microbes can not keep up and the urea cycle becomes overloaded with ammonia and urea circulating in the blood stream even though the animal did not consume toxic levels of non-protein nitrogen.

This is one of the reasons why soybean meal is often sent to Ward Laboratories, Inc to check the activity level of the urease enzyme.  Soybean meal is processed and heated to high temperatures denaturing or melting the enzyme, thereby deactivating it.  So, if you plan to feed whole soybeans, which can be a great source of crude protein (approximately 40% crude protein on a dry basis) either ensure they have been heat treated or do not also feed a non-protein nitrogen supplement.  Additionally, do not feed a supplement containing urea when feeding a baled soybean stubble containing lots of leftover beans, ensiled soybeans or if cattle are grazing a cover crop mix which includes soybeans. Soybeans and urea rarely cross paths because both are used as protein sources, but when they do death losses are likely to occur.

soy-998566_960_720

Use a Sharp Pencil for Protein and Profits

Last week, I attended the Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory 19th Annual Open House.  There, agricultural economist Jim Robb touched on the hardships of the drought and forage and pasture availability but drove home the importance of affordable protein supplementation.

Jim Robb showed that corn prices have remained steady and are projected to continue along that trend.  Dried distillers’ grains (DDG), which have become increasingly common as an on pasture protein supplementation, are projected to increase in price in the coming year.  The average protein content of DDGS is about 30% on a dry basis.  Robb, then went on to point out that the price of whole soybeans has decreased with the trade and tariff turmoil leaving soybean meal (SBM) overpriced. Robb suggested that this showed SBM will likely decrease in price making it a more affordable option for protein supplementation.  The average protein content of whole soybeans is 40% on a dry basis.  The protein content of SBM can range from 53-45% on a dry basis depending on processing technique.  In southern states such as Texas and Oklahoma where the cotton crop was large this year, producers have already began feeding whole cotton seeds and cotton seed meal as a cheaper available option for protein supplementation.  The crude protein content of whole cotton seeds and cotton seed meal is about 23% and  45% protein on a dry basis respectively. Robb expects these cotton sources will be shipped and available further north soon.

Jim Robb advised producers to put a sharp pencil to paper when determining their protein supplementation programs for the winter this year.  Not only does this include comparing the prices of each available feed, but the nutrients as well.  To determine the most profitable scheme, producers should test their forage sources.  Using the nutritional information from the forage report and the extimated dry matter intake for the class of animal to be fed, compare the amount available protein supplements needs as it will vary due to differences in protein content as well as the overall price to supplement. Choose the cheapest possible option and avoid over or under supplementation.  Ward Laboratories Inc. can assist with all your forage and supplemental feed testing needs and questions in the coming months.  Testing forages to determine supplementation strategies typical results in more profit.

Diversity in Grazing Animal Operations

Last week was the 18th Annual Nebraska Grazing Conference.  The theme this year was being a steward of the land and managing for diverse plant and wildlife populations through the incorporation of multiple grazing species. There were three speakers this year that spoke about how bringing sheep, goats or both species into their cattle operation made their business more profitable and more ecologically diverse.

The first speaker was a fellow University of Wyoming College of Agriculture and Natural Resources graduate, Sage Askin of Askin Land and Livestock LLC.  He introduced the idea that sheep and goats are browsers as opposed to grazers and therefore, consume different species of rangeland plants than beef cattle.  Mr. Askin choose to utilize sheep, having descended from species naturally adapted to cold dry climates, in his operations to match the harsh Wyoming environment. In his speech, Mr. Askin demonstrated that sheep consume more of the woody, brush plants available on the range and less of the high-quality grasses that cattle prefer.  He concluded that under most circumstances, sheep would not be competing with cattle for feedstuffs, and therefore sheep only added value to the business.  His rule of thumb was that a wyoming producer could run one sheep for every cow already on the land, however he did caution to be conservative when starting to add another species and to be aware of the grazing environment.  If grasslands are more prevalent, as opposed to the mixed range landscape where Askin Land and Livestock operates, sheep will be put in a position to compete with the cattle and that will not benefit either species. Mr. Askin also spoke about utilizing sheep as a creative solution to other agricultural production issues.  His example was a haying operation that was having a difficulty with loosing yield damaged fields due to the elk herds.  Mr. Askin moved some sheep to browse near the hay operation mitigating the elk problem, because elk do not like to graze where sheep are.

The second speaker on multi-species grazing was Brock Terrell of Terrell Farms LLC and Terrell Ranch LLC.  Mr. Terrell added sheep to his already highly diversified operation which includes cow calf, stocker cattle, backgrounding, hay, forage and row cropping.  He showed the benefits of adding sheep to his operation were monetary, ecological, and familial.  Economically, he was able to spread labor and overhead expenses across multiple enterprises on his operation, and he had two marketable products, wool and lambs.  He also reaped benefits of breaking parasite cycles through the varied species on pasture, utilizing more plant biomass to produce meat product, and increased range health through grazing pressure being put on both brush and grasses.  The children on the Terrell Ranch were also able to be involved in the sheep operation.  Mr. Terrell emphasized that the sheep operation was a low labor, low cost enterprise with high value end products and diverse marketing opportunities, providing him with more flexibility in decision making for his farm and ranch.

The third speaker was Mike Wallace who has extensive experience with a masters degree from the University of Kentucky and having managed research groups at the University of Illinois and the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center.  Today Mr. Wallace owns and operates a multi-species grazing operation called the Double M.  Mr. Wallace has reclaimed previously dryland crop ground as pastures filled with warm and cool season grasses and legumes, as well as abandoned cattle feedlots that grow mostly weedy forbes.  Mr. Wallace’s presentation showed how all three species, sheep, goats and cattle can graze and browse together on the same pasture taking advantage of a diverse variety of available forages.  Like the previous speakers, he too saw economical advantages and ecological benefits of utilizing multiple grazing species on the same operation and even in the same pastures.  Mr. Wallace takes a holistic management approach and utilizes planned rotational grazing with small paddocks and plant rest periods.  Mr. Wallace also uses his sheep and goat herds as a unique solution to occurring issues in pastures.  The example he showed was using goats to control cedar encroachment.

Overall the key point is that multiple grazing species can benefit the operation economically, ecologically and can be used to solve unique issues in a creative way.  The other speakers in the grazing conference were mostly concerned with monitoring of range land and pastures. Monitoring can come in many different forms, record keeping of grazing and resting pastures, taking photos to track changes, visual observation and notes, and taking various samples for numerical data.  Ward Laboratories, Inc. can help with forage quality samples and soil health samples, which can be used to make supplementation decisions and track range and pasture health overtime respectively.

Prussic Acid and Nitrates in Sorghum and Sudan Grasses: Proper Sampling for Grazing Animals

Often, Ward Laboratories, Inc receives sorghum samples and producers want us to test prussic acid and nitrates.  My recommendation would be to send two separate samples when testing for grazing purposes because prussic acid and nitrates accumulate in different parts of the plant. Prussic acid accumulatesin the leaves of the grass in contrast to nitrate which accumulates in the plants lower stock.

Prussic acid is also known as hydrogen cyanide (HCN).  The compound is present in the leaves of the plants in a compound called dhurrin.  Under normal conditions, plant membranes separate dhurrin from the enzyme responsible for hydrolyzing HCN from dhurrin. Monogastric animals and hindgut fermenters such as swine and horses, typically do not have an issue with prussic acid poisoning as stomach acid deactivates the enzyme.  However, ruminants such as cattle, sheep and goats, are more susceptible to prussic acid poisoning due to the chewing of their cud.  As those animals ruminate, the cell membranes are damaged allowing the enzyme access to dhurrin, thereby releasing HCN into the rumen.  The HCN is then absorbed directly into the bloodstream where is binds hemoglobin.  The bound hemoglobin can not transfer oxygen to individual cells and death by asphyxiation is the result.

An additional risk for prussic acid poisioning is posed by stressed and damaged plants , this is when it becomes toxic to non-ruminant livestock.  Drought stressed plants may accumulate more unbound HCN in their leaves.  Frost damaged plants also have unbound HCN in their leaves due to the frost having broken the cell membranes allowing enzyme access to dhurrin.  In the case of frost, outer cell membranes have also been damaged, therefore waiting 4-5 days before grazing is sufficient assurance that the hydrogen cyanide gas has escaped the plant leaves.  After a frost, regrowth is toxic past the 4-5 day time frame and should certainly be tested before turning animals out to graze.

So, for testing prussic acid take leaves from 20 different plants across the field for a representative sample.  Do not cut the leaves and avoid as much damage as possible.  Immediately place all leaves in a gallon sized zip lock bag. Either ship the sample overnight, or drop the sample off at Ward Laboratories, Inc. as soon as possible.  When we receive your sample, we will refrigerate it and run it as quickly as we can as to not loose any HNC and to avoid a false low value.  Samples reported at >200 ppm as received are considered toxic and allowing animals to graze would result in a rapid death toll.

I have covered nitrate toxicity in other blogs including: Do I Need to Test for Nitrates?, 6 Cautions When Grazing Cover Crops, and 4 Considerations for Feeding Hail Damaged Forage and Crop Residues. So, for testing nitrates in sorghum and sudan grasses for grazing go into the field and cut the plant at the point where you plan to pull animals off.  Then, cut 4-6 inches above that, with this small piece use plant shears and snip it into pieces.  Repeat this with 20 randomly located plants across the field.  Then mix all the small plant pieces together and take a representative sub-sample from that pile.  Place them in a zip lock bag and send them to Ward Laboratories, Inc. for nitrate analysis.

In summary, test the leaves for prussic acid and the stocks for nitrate.  It is always important to take a representative sample for the most accurate results and informed production decisions.

Additional Resource:

Nitrate and Prussic Acid Toxicity in Forage

Do I Need to Test For Nitrates?

Last week I attended both the Colorado Cattlemen’s Annual Convention and the Sandhills Ranch Expo at the Ward Laboratories Inc tradeshow booths.  At both locations, producers had concerns about nitrates.  The climate and weather however were contrasting conditions.  Colorado producers wondered how drought stress might affect the nitrate levels in their forages, while Nebraska and South Dakota producers were concerned if too much precipitation might have affect nitrate levels in forages.  Here are 5 factors that affect how nitrates accumulate in forages.

  1. Plant Species

Some plant species accumulate nitrates more than others.  These species should be tested for nitrates regularly before feeding to animals.  These species are: sorghum (milo), sudan grass, millet, oats, johnson grass, broadleaf weeds, corn and sunflowers.  There are other species which also accumulate nitrates but not to the same extent as those listed above: wheat, rye, and triticale fall into these categories.  Finally, under extreme stress alfalfa and soybeans can accumulate nitrates, however the stress must be extensive, and this situation is very rare.

  1. Maturity of the Plant

Young plants and regrowth take up nitrogen from the soil faster than it can be converted to protein.  Older more mature plants take up nitrogen at a slower rate and have had plenty of time to convert nitrogen to protein.  Therefore, younger plants and regrowth tend to accumulate more nitrates than older mature plants.

  1. Plant Part

The lower 1/3 of the stock of the plant is where the most nitrates are stored.  Leaves and stems do not store nitrates in the plant. When grazing, leaving the last third of the stock might be a good idea to avoid any nitrate toxicity issues.

  1. Environmental Conditions

Stress due to weather or climate may increase nitrate accumulation.  During drought stress, the plant may be able to take up nitrogen but not have enough moisture to convert it to protein.  On the other hand, coming out of a drought a dramatic increase in moisture may cause the plant to take up more nitrogen than it can convert to protein in a timely fashion.  Frost and freezing temperatures also cause stress to the plant and nitrate accumulation.

  1. Management

Nitrogen fertilization is a common cause of nitrate accumulation in forages.  Nitrogen fertilization may increase yield, but it also increases risk of nitrate toxicities.

Nitrates are tricky.  I often run into producers who want to tell me their situation and management practices and ask if they need to test.  The truth is no one can determine the nitrate levels based on an antidote.  Testing is the only way to have full confidence.  If there are concerns, send forage samples to Ward Laboratories, Inc for a nitrates test and use the table below as a guide to interpert your report.

Nitrates

Silage for Beef Cattle 2018 Conference

Last week I attended the Silage for Beef Cattle Conference in Mead, NE.  For those of you who put up corn silage, or provide advice for those who do I would highly recommend listening to the online uploads from this conference as well as looking over the proceedings. Here are 8 key concepts I took away from the conference:

  1. Processing is crucial.

Processing of the grain is very important to the digestibility and therefore, energy availability of the corn silage.  It is recommended that there should not be a single intact corn kernel in the final silage product.  To monitor this, separate the forage portion of the silage from the grain and then closely inspect the grain.  Adequate and consistent monitoring through the chopping process is key.

  1. Determining when to harvest is difficult and varies by operation.

As the plant matures fiber increases, kernel hardness increases thereby decreasing the digestibility of the forage and starch portions of the plant.  However, at a more immature stage less corn kernels are present, and the moisture of the plant is too high for ensiling.  Therefore, the recommendation was to harvest a week before or at black layer when the dry matter content of the green chop is between 33 – 38%.  However, the best practices may differ from operation to operation.

  1. Ensiling time is important.

As fermentation time increases, starch digestibility also increases.  For the fermentation to go to completion, it is recommended to ensile at least 90 days, but 120 days would be optimal.

  1. Packing is key to minimize shrink and prevent spoilage.

Delayed packing increases risk of yeast and mold spoilage.  It is also important to pack with enough weight and consistency.  Check out this packing density calculator from University of Wisconsin extension.

  1. Proper covering is also key to prevent shrink and spoilage.

O2 barrier plastics are the best option for covering, however polyethylene coverings are also an option with about a 5% difference in dry matter recovery.

  1. There are lots of ways ensiling can go wrong.

Silage contaminants can come from many different sources including soil, damages plants from hail or insects, manure, wildlife, rodents and birds.  These contaminants can include infectious microorganism such as salmonella, listeria, clostridia and toxin producing molds or undesirable fermentation by-products such as toxic amines or ammonia.

  1. Feeding spoiled corn silage at any inclusion rate is detrimental to rumen health.

Both dry matter intake and digestibility of neutral detergent fiber decrease when spoiled corn silage is included in the diet.  Additionally, when cannulated cattle were examined, the forage mat in the rumen was completely destroyed, again at any inclusion rate of spoiled corn silage.

  1. Producers can determine if they have aerobic deterioration of silage on farm.

At Ward Laboratories, Inc, I often suggest producers who are unsure of their silage to test both mold count and pH.  On farm producers can take the temperature of the center of the pile and other outer locations.  Moldy spots will be 20-30°F hotter, with up to 8 times the coliform forming units of mold than the core of the pile.

Again, this is a snapshot of the important information shared at the corn silage conference.  Check out the online uploads and consider sending your silage samples to Ward Laboratories Inc. to test for nutrient contents, pH, moisture and mold count.